Workplace culture is the environment that you create for your staff. In turn, this directly impacts the children in your care. A positive workplace culture can lead to greater employee engagement and retention, increased employee satisfaction and, ultimately, make your nursery business more successful. The culture of your nursery should stem from your values and vision. By regularly returning to these overarching principles, you can use them to guide your practice and change your culture for the better.
‘Our Montessori ethos underpins our whole reach from the way we work with the children to our respect for each other,’ says Helen Gration, owner of Yorkshire Montessori Nursery, which operates four settings. ‘We believe wholeheartedly that we have to model in the team how we behave with the children and one another. It is incredibly important that, while I am the owner of the nursery and have the final say, everyone in the team has a voice and is allowed to utilise their voice. The idea of respect is that it gives everyone the ability to speak and to contribute.’
The culture of a nursery setting is impacted by a number of factors, with the main one being leadership. Stella Ziolkowski, director of quality and training at the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), says that during inspections under the new Education Inspection Framework, the ‘integrity’ of the leader is taken into consideration. The way that you communicate with your staff, facilitate team-building, reflection and continuous improvement all merge together.
Ms Ziolkowski recommends that leaders cultivate an environment where staff feel comfortable sharing their needs, both personal and professional. ‘Regular team meetings should offer staff the chance to discuss their view on the management of the setting and have an input into how the provision is run,’ she says. ‘Leaders should be proactively responding to staff’s concerns so that they feel heard and any issues can be dealt with in a timely manner.’
Team-building helps to develop quality relationships and enables there to be a culture of continuous improvement among staff. ‘It is important to build trust and rapport to create a culture where staff can feel comfortable to make mistakes,’ says HR consultant and nursery director Sophie Haylock.
Amelia Joyner, pre-school leader at Cullompton Pre-school in Devon, believes they have managed to develop a supportive environment where staff trust each other by having clear and regular communication that enables them to feel valued and heard.
‘We often discuss at staff meeting the depth of how well we know each other professionally, that we will step in for each other with a brief glance across a room,’ she says. ‘We share ideas and problem-solve – giving all staff ownership of our practice. I encourage all staff to share concerns and empower everyone to feel that our staff meetings are safe places to contribute and to be listened to.’
She says they have a ‘rigorous programme of staff meetings, key person meetings and morning briefings so the team can come together to share information. Having the right information at the right time is vital. We also have a strong base for reviews and supervisions every half-term. Supervisions are a focus for talking about concerns, safeguarding issues, personal issues and any issues within the team. Reviews are a focus on performance, excellent practice and areas to develop.’
Monthly staff meetings at Yorkshire Montessori Nursery include the opportunity for staff to revisit the group’s vision, evaluate the work that is happening and discuss what they would like to do next in order to build reflection into their practice. Any new ideas at manager level are trialled in the nurseries so that staff can evaluate it and give feedback. The meetings also include time to discuss any new national initiatives and a ‘Montessori moment’ to aid personal and group development.
‘It is very important that you have clear objectives, whether a standalone pre-school or a big nursery group,’ says Ms Haylock. ‘If you don’t have that then you can’t set individual objectives, so whether you have supervisions weekly, monthly or annually you are not actually able to feed back on anything. There needs to be something to measure against for supervisions and appraisals – expectations, goals, targets that can cascade down.’
She is also a ‘big believer’ in ongoing conversations between leaders and staff. ‘There is a lot of evidence in the wider HR sphere that we should be moving away from annual appraisals to chatting throughout the year. Leaders should be having conversations all the time, whether that’s going into a room or while making a cup of tea.’
While these conversations do not have to be time-consuming, she believes they should be regular and impact quality, such as giving a staff member immediate feedback. Giving regular critique or praise can support a culture of continuous improvement.
Ms Haylock adds that if leaders do not give feedback when they see something wrong, this can negatively impact the culture of the setting because staff will assume that what they are doing is acceptable. She recommends documenting three or four conversations each year by summarising what was chatted about, instead of spending time planning and conducting appraisals, which will also reduce workload.
Another big factor is recruitment. By careful recruiting and, importantly, inducting new staff into the culture of your setting, you can ensure your vision continues to be lived out.
At Yorkshire Montessori Nursery, candidates are sent the group’s mission statement during the recruitment process and then the culture of the nursery is explained to them during the interview so that they understand expectations. While Ms Gration does not conduct all the interviews, she does send out all job offers and personally welcomes new staff.
‘I believe in being very present and known to staff,’ she says. ‘I make sure that I meet all new members of staff and will sit in the nursery and interact with children and staff whenever I can so that they know I’m there and approachable.’
Ms Haylock adds that embedding the culture of a nursery continues during the induction process. She recommends an ‘upfront’ induction process where weak areas flagged up at interview are discussed along with a plan of how to support them. Also, identifying the differences in culture from the previous setting so that new staff know what their expectations are – there is no point getting frustrated that a staff member is not answering the phone and not telling them. Perhaps they were not allowed to at their previous setting.
‘Just because someone got the job does not mean that they are the perfect candidate,’ Ms Haylock says. ‘They could be the best practitioner in the world but used to doing things in different ways. There has got to be a link between the interview and induction.’
ADVICE FOR LEADERS
- Create a culture of openness by having regular conversations with staff.
- Give feedback rather than allowing small issues to develop into larger ones.
- Listen to and take on board the opinions of your team.
- If you are feeling overwhelmed then return to your vision and identify whether there is a problem, then address it or put it to one side.
- Join local business networking groups outside of the sector that can give a different perspective.